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listening between the words

listening between the words

by Andrea
April 29, 2013

I was moved by Judy's last essay, "could I have done more?" It is a question that is on my mind a lot. It's probably on a lot of our minds. In a way her essay touched the essence of why I wanted to create this blog—to reach more deeply into my heart and experience, to understand and give voice to this impulse that wants to leave no stone unturned, no words left unsaid, and to open up this conversation with Judy and others who share this similar life circumstance with elderly parents (or others). It was also important for me to give a voice to my mother, maybe because she never had the chance to cultivate her own voice in the same way that later generations of women were able to. I wanted to acknowledge her simple but hard working, committed life, and thank her for the many sacrifices she made on behalf of my father and all of her kids. It simply has to be said. And can't be said enough.

As I think about this question of "could I have done more" I'm aware that part of me panics. Of course I could have done more. A lot more. But I don’t think this is the most useful response. I think Judy's question is aimed to a deeper place within us, a place where there is no panic at all—even if we could have done a lot more. There are times in my life I’ve felt tremendous regret for not being more available for others. For example, as a parent I couldn't be there for everything. And yet my daughter turned out great. For all that I missed, there are some things I didn't miss, and for those I missed, others managed to catch. So even though I wasn't able to be there for everything, what seemed to matter most was being "awake" for the time I did have. 

Me and Ali, 1993I’m not saying that I was always awake, but more that I realized that being awake is what mattered most. I remember one time picking up my daughter from kindergarten. She was only 5. When I saw her she looked terrified. Through her frightened sobs she told me she had been playing near the woods on the periphery of the school grounds, and then the older kids said there were killers in those woods. Silly as it sounds, this was probably one of the most important moments to be awake, to listen fully, and extricate her terror through whispers of love and reason—so that she would never be afraid to play near those woods again. And she wasn’t.

So I realized it's not necessarily about being there for everything. It's more about being awake for the time we do have. To be awake and to listen. I think so many of us go crazy trying to be there for everything, and then we're hardly there at all. Probably a lot of us feel that way about our elderly parents. It’s hard to be there for everything.

With my mother, I can't be there every day, and I can't be there for everything. I wish I could, but I live 2 hours away. So I go once a week, usually for about 24 hours. This way I have good solid time with her. Time to really be with her, time to get a sense of how she is doing. Time to paint her nails or wash and cut her hair. Time to eat with her and her new friends or read the paper together. Most important of all, time to listen. Listen to not only the words, but to what’s between the words. That's where I listen most. What's between the words, what's the quality? That's where I get most of my information. 

I think this is really important as our parents get older. To listen between the words. This takes stillness, openness, and not wanting to hurry anything. I have found there is a lot of joy there, and other sweet surprises. The words are a small part. They really are. There is another place I am learning about this in my life, and that is with my sister. I have a beautiful sister who has early onset Alzheimers. I haven't written about this yet. It's been hard, and I haven't quite been able to begin. But I am learning through being with my sister the art of listening to what's between the words. That's where I find my sister now. It's not in the words, because they’re mostly pretty scrambled. But between the words, in that space where we laugh, hold hands, where we smile, where she lights up when she sees me (and when I see her)—that's where she is. Yes, parts of her are gone, but her sweet spirit has not gone anywhere. There's just a different way to listen.

It's listening to whispers of love that live in the space between the words.

Feel free to share your thoughts


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